A department store before opening time is an emotionless place. There is no life, movement, sentiment or empathy. Escalators stand dormant, fountains sit stagnant, aircon lies quiet. It is too dim to see and too silent to hear, and the only way that Zoltan Jones knows he is not alone is by the distant, occasional sounds of clipped footsteps and market forces.
It is one second before 7:55 on any Tuesday morning in 2012. The early shift at Mike’s Milkshakes is neither glamorous nor necessary - who needs thirty-two ounces of sugar and lactose before they are sober enough to knot their tie - but it keeps a man in weed and Reeboks until he can figure out what to do instead. Zoltan’s watch beeps 7:55. He finishes raising the shutters, purses his lips, and begins whistling Careless Whisper by George Michael.
The sacred notes flow out of Mike’s Milkshakes, over the railings to the ground floor, soar to the ceiling, round the bends in the concourse, and spread to every other lot in the building. They saturate the air and condense to pure liquid sound. Zoltan’s favorite part of the song is the hook, so he repeats it fifteen times before fading out.
He likes to think of his ritual as some of the most confusing and bewildering performances of George Michael’s oeuvre that there will ever be. As always, he thinks of all the other Zoltans opening all the other shutters; puzzled, distracted by the repetitious, untraceable sounds that accompany their every morning. One day he’ll stop, perhaps never to start again. That’s when he hopes that things will get really weird.
It is two decades later and the machines have taken over and enslaved the entire human race. Zoltan lies slumped and broken against the wall of his cell. The soles of his feet ooze thick, infected blood onto its dull, metallic floor. He can no longer tell where gore ends and diarrhea begins. His cell mate with the fractured spine hangs lifelessly from the wall. He is probably dead by now.
A robotic guard glides silently through the corridor, scanning for any trace of trouble. There is none. The Overlords make sure of that. From a distant corner of the facility, Zoltan hears the mournful sound of a dying breath whistling Careless Whisper by George Michael. He remembers.
“I deserve this,” he thinks. “I deserve this.”